Southeastern Guide Dogs Opens New Student Center

By Tatiana Ortiz

The wait for a new student center at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, came to a close. Southeastern Guide Dogs celebrated the grand opening of their new Barpal-Hirst Student Center, which broke ground in March 2015. Sarasota residents Margaret and Isaac Barpal and Keith G. Hirst are the lead donors. Together they pledged $3 million towards the project.

“We took on a theme of growth and we want to see Southeastern Guide Dogs as an organization with a great future. In fact, the organization knows what it wants to do 50 years from now,” Hirst said.

In 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs became established. Along with that, the new $8.5 million student center resides on 33-acres in Palmetto. The non-profit organization operates through donors and private funding. The facility will house visually impaired students and veterans during their 26-day on campus training, as well as provide office space for support staff and volunteers. This 30,865 sq. ft.
climate-controlled interior place and 5,503 sq. ft. covered exterior features 12 private student rooms, a dining hall, training facilities and much more. It will serve more than 550 students and graduates as well as welcoming tens of thousands of visitors.

The existing student dormitory administrative building began as a two-story bedroom home more than 32 years ago. Many renovations occurred in response to the organization’s growth, but the general building maintenance exceeded its effectiveness over time. With the lack of space and too small of a building, lead into the development of the Barpal-Hirst Student Center. Now two people with dogs can pass side-by-side with the 8ft. hallways.

Former student Suzy Wilburn shared her excitement about the center and how the program changed her life. Wilburn has Stargardt disease, which effects her vision. She works as its Director of Admissions and Student Services.

For more information visit www.guidedogs.org. It is located at 4210 77th Street East in Palmetto. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Call 941-729-5665.